Jacksonville cathedral to renovate space for use by architecture students in university partnership

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Aug 14, 2023

The third floor of Cathedral House at St. John’s Cathedral, Jacksonville, Florida, soon will be the home of JaxLab, a new initiative for graduate-level architecture students at the University of Florida. Photo: Nancy Purcell

[Episcopal News Service] St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville, Florida, soon will welcome graduate-level students of a University of Florida architecture program, contributing to the cathedral’s long-term goal of putting its property to fuller use while also helping revitalize its neighborhood.

The program, to be known as JaxLab, will be part of the university’s School of Architecture, which is under the College of Design, Construction and Planning. This will be the College’s second CityLab program, in which students work at an architecture firm while completing online and in-person courses that are geared to each program’s physical location. According to a news release about the joint venture, JaxLab will offer two programs – a master’s degree in sustainability and a Master of Architecture, which is the professional degree that leads to licensing as an architect in Florida.

The cathedral relocated a few classrooms and archival space to make room for students in the third floor of its next-door office and education building, known as Cathedral House. Renovations on the 2,500-plus square feet of space will take place this fall, thanks to $350,000 the cathedral is helping to raise along with Cathedral District-Jax, Inc., a nonprofit development agency the cathedral helped create before it became a separate agency in 2016.

Classes will begin meeting there in the spring and will include studio space and plotting and printing equipment, as well as video conferencing capabilities. The cathedral will install a new security system to allow the original group of about 20 students round-the-clock access to the third floor for classes and to work on projects. Their presence is expected to add a new sense of vibrancy to the neighborhood, the news release said.

Ginny Myrick, president and CEO of Cathedral District-Jax, told Episcopal News Service that the Gainesville-based university contacted the Jacksonville nonprofit three years ago about locating its new architecture initiative in Jacksonville. They were drawn by the city’s large number of historic buildings, and its proximity both to the St. John’s River and to St. Augustine’s, which is the longest continually inhabited European-founded city in the United States.

Cathedral District-Jax showed university officials the space in Cathedral House and helped negotiate a five-year lease, which provides the space free of charge for two years, after which the university will pay $15 a square foot. The lease can be renegotiated after five years.

The Very Rev. Kate Moorehead Carroll, St. John’s dean, told ENS that using its building for this project is something other churches with under-utilized space need to contemplate. “Depreciating property sitting empty is not what Christ would call us to do,” she said, calling that “fundamentally unfaithful.” Instead, churches need to find ways to fill their building with activities “that either are doing the ministry of God or that is generating revenue, or both.”

Adding to this new use of Cathedral House is Carroll’s understanding of the role of a cathedral in relation to its city. “A cathedral, in my mind, is very civic-minded,” she said. “We have a responsibility to the city we serve.” She also noted a natural connection to this new university program because medieval universities grew out of cathedrals. “We were deans first, and academic robes come from cathedral worship,” she said, “so the marriage of academia with cathedral has always made a lot of sense to me.”

She noted that the cathedral’s motto is “Love at the Core,” pointing to “love at the core of our heart and love in the urban core.”

Revitalizing that urban core is critical to the neighborhood’s long-term viability, said Myrick, who is a 30-year cathedral member. She noted that the Cathedral District, which takes its name from St. John’s but includes four other historic churches of other denominations, over time has lost the sense of vibrancy necessary for healthy neighborhoods. A master plan the agency commissioned says the area “has experienced disinvestment and is now equally characterized by parking lots, dangerous one-way streets, very few homes and an excess of social services.” About half the 118-acre area now is parking lots, she said, giving people the sense that the area is empty.

For decades the cathedral has helped build housing in the area – low-income housing in the 1960s and townhouses in the 1990s – but Myrick said those efforts weren’t part of a coordinated strategy like the one Cathedral District-Jax now employs. It starts, she said, with the need for a variety of real estate serving people with a variety of incomes. The agency’s work, she said, is characterized by three things: It’s fact-based, strategic and patient.

It bought buildings and empty land in the block adjacent to the cathedral and sold it to a developer who now is turning the space into 120 apartments, 60% of which will rent at market rates. Carroll said that those renters likely will be working people – including teachers, nurses and firefighters – to help make sure housing reflects a variety of income levels across the district. The area currently lacks economic diversity, she said, although it is culturally diverse.

Myrick said that in urban areas, the health of a cathedral or a church and its neighborhood are intertwined. “Churches are part of their neighborhoods,” she said, and looking outside their walls to see how they can help the surrounding area be more robust helps everyone.

Carroll said that “Love at the Core” means churches should seek ways to generate something creative, beautiful and even innovative in their neighborhoods. “It’s so incarnational,” she said, “taking your physical surroundings very seriously and being called by God to activate and improve the setting in which you live and work, so people can thrive.”

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.